Seniors, watch out: Scammers are targeting you

We seniors are natural scam targets and very susceptible to fraud. As we get older we are less likely to consider the downside of the financial risks – we are more apt to look at the upside. We are less critical in our decision making, which makes us vulnerable. The scammers are perceived as trustworthy helpers. They may be a family member, financial advisor or another senior.

The National Council on Aging, AARP and OPAG suggest you watch out for the following scams:

Prescription drug scams. Seniors often take a myriad of prescription medications which can be expensive. It is no wonder that seniors are likely to fall for online schemes that promise deeply discounted prices on medication. But once shoppers hand over a credit card number, their money is taken, and they never receive their medication.

Investment scams. Seniors are eager to multiply their nest egg to provide for a more comfortable retirement. That makes them easy prey for fake “investment opportunities” that don’t really offer a return. Whether it is plowing money into a fledgling or even fictional business, or buying vacation property that does not exist.

Internet and email scams. The Internet can be a confusing place for seniors who haven’t had much experience with technology. A Pew Research Internet Use study found that many adults over the age of 74 use the Internet solely for heath information, news and buying products and are not as savvy when it comes to email, social networking and online safety. When a senior receives an email promising big returns for a small investment, it can be easy to become excited. Even if you can spot an Internet or email scam from a mile away, an unsuspecting senior might hand over his or her personal information without a second thought.

Reverse mortgage scams. Reverse mortgages have made it possible for some seniors to have a more comfortable retirement by turning their home equity into a reliable stream of income from the bank. Even legitimate reverse mortgages, however, should be considered carefully, as in many cases, you must eventually turn your deed over to the bank. In other words, the bank—and not your heirs – could get your home when you pass away.

Charity scams. Scammers posing as charity workers contact seniors and offer up a sad story which, of course, concludes with a plea for funding. Seniors are taken in by the tale, and send along money to help. Charity scams often carry a note of urgency – a telemarketer might note that money has to be given now or ask that a credit card number be given in lieu of a mailed check. This gives a senior virtually no time to investigate the supposed charity and contemplate whether they should give. Such a scam takes advantage of a senior’s compassion.

Check scams. Check scams involve a con artist offering to buy an item from a seller (often through Craigslist) using a cashier’s check made out for an amount that is greater than necessary. The scammer then asks that the check be cashed, and the excess funds returned. Of course the check is fraudulent and before the seller realizes this they have lost the funds and item they put up for sale.

Help scams. This often causes victims to panic and act without calmly considering the situation. A scam artist calls up the unsuspecting target, and with some basic information convinces the senior that he or she has a grandchild in a dire situation. Then, the scammer asks for financial help because of an accident or other emergency. The scammer then has money wired directly into his or her hands. Of course the real grandchild is perfectly fine, oblivious that his or her name has been used to execute a scam.

Using fraudulent legal documents. Many scammers cloak their actions in legal authority, procuring a power of attorney or will or other legal document giving them access to the senior’s property. They get seniors to sign these documents through lying, intimidation or threats.

Getting unauthorized access to funds. In “sweetheart scams” alleged suitors woo older people, convincing them that love and care are their motivations for being included on bank accounts or property deeds. The suitors usually disappear along with the property.

Charging excessive amounts of money. This tactic is often used for products that many older people might find essential to their quality of life such as hearing aids and safety alert devices.

Selling bogus items. One of the most egregious of false sales ploys is dubbed “Rock in a Box”. A senior is sweet-talked into buying an item, such as a color television (at a bargain price) that comes in a box that is suspiciously sealed. When the box arrives, it contains a well-padded rock.

Health Care/Medicare/health insurance fraud. Every U.S. citizen or permanent resident over age 65 qualifies for Medicare, so there is rarely any need for a scam artist to research what private health insurance company older people have in order to scam them out of some money. In these types of scams, perpetrators may pose as a Medicare representative to get older people to give them their personal information, or they will provide bogus services for elderly people at makeshift mobile clinics, then use the personal information they provide to bill Medicare and pocket the money.

Funeral and cemetery scams. In one approach, scammers read obituaries and call or attend the funeral service of a complete stranger to take advantage of the grieving widow or widower. Claiming the deceased had an outstanding debt with them, scammers will try to extort money from relatives to settle the fake debts. Another tactic of disreputable funeral homes is to capitalize on family members’ unfamiliarity with the considerable cost of funeral services to add unnecessary charges to the bill. In one common scam of this type, funeral directors will insist that a casket, usually one of the most expensive parts of funeral services, is necessary even when performing a direct cremation, which can be accomplished with a cardboard casket rather than an expensive display or burial casket.

Telemarketing. Perhaps the most common scheme is when scammers use fake telemarketing calls to prey on older people. Older people as a group make twice as many purchases over the phone than the national average.

Unsolicited home repair work. Typically working in teams of two or more, scammers scour neighborhoods with a high concentration of older residents, or even track recent widows and widowers through obituaries and death notices, then appear on their doorsteps claiming to spot something in need of fixing – a hole in the roof or clogged drainpipe, for example. The scammers demand upfront payment, and claim that their initial investigation reveals a more serious problem, with a more expensive solution.

The “work” they do is unlicensed and often shoddy, such as applying paint to a roof to make it appear as if it has been tangibly fixed. In a twist of this scam, one alleged worker might distract the elder while another enters the house to steal money and other valuables.

Our best protection against scammers is to be suspicious and vigilant. Ask questions, say no, and ask for advice from a trusted advisor or family member.

Leonard T. Kelley is the board president for Older Persons Action Group, Inc.